Cyber Strategy Takes Center-Stage at Obama Press Conference on Russian Hacking

Cyber Strategy Takes Center-Stage at Obama Press Conference on Russian Hacking 150 150 N2K

Presidential Comments on Russian Hacking

In the weeks following the U.S. Presidential Election, a high-tech heist of Democratic National Committee emails prompted tensions to steadily rise between the United States and Russia. Most recently, all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have unanimously attributed the attack to Russia.  However, the way forward is now marred by uncertainty. The proper response to apparent Russian interference—complicated by the absence of precedents and norms governing cyber warfare— has divided a Washington already embroiled by a messy transition of power.

In the weeks leading up to election day, embarrassing emails belonging to DNC officials were leaked and circulated on websites like WikiLeaks and DCLeaks. According to the CIA, despite similarly infiltrating and gaining access to similar information at the Republican National Committee, the Kremlin released the DNC’s emails to disproportionately harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
A joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence likewise suggested that a Russia-directed information warfare campaign was underway. The statement read in part, “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

“We Have Offensive and Defensive Capabilities”

This afternoon, President Barack Obama delivered his final news conference of the year, reinforcing in blunt terms that Russia was indeed responsible for the DNC hacking scandal, a conclusion  that has been publically questioned by President-Elect Donald Trump and several Republican officials.   
President Obama also used the opportunity to stress the importance of cybersecurity, framing the Russian hacking incident within the broader context of ubiquitous cyber attacks in the digital age. Specifically, he referenced China’s cyber attacks on private U.S. companies.   
In the past, President Obama has indicated that he would like to pursue a “proportional” response to cyber attacks. However, even after this recent press conference, there is still disagreement over what constitutes  a proportional response.  Furthermore the lack of clarity of what a more aggressive posture in cyberspace would look like for the United States—and whether such activities would be made public—remains unclear. Obama stressed the importance of sending an assertive, “clear message” to Russia that also comes across as “thoughtful and methodical.”

Policy Change?

Ultimately, there is real danger in allowing Russia’s election interference to become just another scandal that gets lost in the shuffle of the 24-hour news cycle. Following a messy campaign that seemed to generate new controversies on a daily basis, it would be easy to grow tone-deaf to political upheaval. However, the integrity of democracy is a matter of unique importance and our electoral system is democracy’s crown jewel— one that should not become fodder for partisan posturing.
Moreover, the domestic political implications of this hacking incident should not distract anyone from the geopolitical risks associated with engaging offensively in cyberspace. Retaliatory hacking has never been a matter of U.S. policy. Escalation could indeed trigger an aggressive cyber arms race between nations. That’s a risky strategy to pursue—made all the more dangerous by the U.S.’s shortage of cyber-ready talent and the public’s enduring bewilderment over cybersecurity issues.
To paraphrase Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz: Before we endeavor upon a (cyber) war, we must be prepared to win it.